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10 Steps to Improve Your Brainpower

By Steve Edwards
From Team Beachbody - Click here for resources, tools and information to help you to reach your health, fitness and positive lifestyle goals!

We know that exercise will help us look better in a bathing suit, but most of us aren't aware of how important it is when it comes to brain function. While common lore suggests that jocks are dumb and brainiacs rarely leave the research lab, science paints a different picture - one wherein the fitter you are, the smarter you become. Let's look at 10 ways to improve your cognitive abilities.

Teaching and Learning for the Brain

  1. Aerobic ExerciseAerobic exercise. In the 1990s, a now-famous experiment was done on mice at The Salk Institute of Biological Science in San Diego. Two groups of mice led similar lifestyles, with one difference, an exercise wheel for some to play on. The group with the treadmills dominated the other in a series of cognitive tests.

    This should not be surprising, given that oxygen is vital for every human function, and by definition, aerobic exercise circulates oxygen. But, many further tests have been done, and we now know that we can train our brains the same way we train our muscles, and our brains will respond in a similar fashion. In fact, our brains continue to regenerate neurons until we die. The mice with treadmills in their cages produced two to three times the number of neurons produced by the non-treadmill group.


  2. Anaerobic exercise. Anaerobic exercise includes short bouts of intense movement that don't use oxygen. Most of us know that this is how we build muscle, but the same hormones released during this process also improve brain function. Even training our muscles improves how our brains work. "Muscle activity is a cue to keep a synapse stable, and synaptic inactivity is a cue to disassemble a synapse," stated Jeff W. Lichtman, M.D., Ph.D., at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in Science Magazine. "So if you lose activity, you lose receptors. But if you regain activity, you get those receptors back."

  3. P90X®Try something new. New activities force an adaptation process on your brain as much as on your muscles. In P90X®, we call it "Muscle Confusion," but the brain is what's stimulated first, and it's exercised just as much as the targeted muscles. If you've ever wondered why we have so many different types of workouts, now you have your answer. New activity stimulates the mind and body alike.

  4. Visualize. When you don't have time to exercise, don't put it out of your mind. Instead, try focusing on physical tasks that you'd like to do when you have the time. A study in 2001 showed that you can increase muscle strength by just thinking about it. Over a 12-week period, a study done on visualization by the Cleveland Clinic showed that strength could be increased by concentrating on it for 5 minutes a day. Brain scans showed "greater and more focused" activity in the prefrontal cortex after 12 weeks, leading to the assumption that the strength gains were due to improvements in the brain's ability to signal muscle.

  5. Eat BetterEat better. Your brain only weighs about 2 percent of your body weight but uses 20 percent of the oxygen and nutrients you take in. If your body is starving for nutrients and needs those that it's getting for survival functions, your brain activity will suffer.

  6. Relax. Finding ways to de-stress is vital for efficient brain function as anxiety and stress destroy neurons. Meditating or having fun with friends (especially if you laugh a lot) can keep your anxiety levels under control. The same goes for beginning your day with a relaxing morning ritual, like this Good Day Sunshine routine, which will stimulate your brain with positive thoughts that can proactively reduce your stress levels.

  7. TravelTravel. The forced stimuli that travel induces have been shown to have a great benefit on your brain function. There is nothing quite like immersing yourself in a foreign culture wherein you don't understand the language to force your brain into a survival mode that leads to accelerated adaptation.

  8. Stay hydrated. Our bodies are nearly 70 percent water, but the brain is closer to 90 percent. Water composes more of the brain than any other organ, which is why you find it hard to think when you're extremely hot and/or dehydrated.

  9. StretchStretch. In daily life, our muscles contract and become tighter. We become less flexible. Most of us are at least somewhat aware that this hinders our physical abilities, but it also reduces our mental capacities. There are many books that advocate "brain exercises," and while certainly helpful, most of these are fairly simple stretches that we wouldn't need to do if we actually exercised properly. Stretching helps oxygen transport, helps you de-stress, and actually aids every physical process discussed above. Taking a few minutes a couple of times a day to lightly stretch and thoroughly warming up and cooling down after exercise will keep your brain feeling supple and sharp.

  10. Break routines. Doing things differently helps keep your brain from getting complacent. Small acts like getting dressed differently, closing your eyes during mundane tasks, using your computer mouse with your opposite hand, and so on are part of something called Neurobics™, a system to exercise your brain created by Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center.
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